Immigration and Custom Enforcement’s sudden and surprise transfer of dozens of New York and New Jersey immigrants out of a detention center in the Hudson Valley this week constitutes a shift from prior years, when more than 2,000 immigrants awaiting the disposition of their deportation cases were held in five local jails. Today, there are just more than 100 detainees at just two facilities, and the number is dropping fast.

This stems both from a national decline in the number of people arrested and held by ICE compared to during the Trump Administration, and from the fact that local political pressure against deplorable conditions in ICE-contracted jails has led to the closure of three ICE facilities in North Jersey last year and litigation to shutter a fourth.

Now, that pressure is part of what is prompting ICE to depopulate the fifth and final facility in the region that holds immigrants — the Orange County Correctional Facility in Goshen, NY. Without warning on Monday, dozens of New Yorkers and New Jerseyans held at the facility were transferred to facilities around the country, including a privately-run jail in Mississippi where immigrants have previously complained of officers’ use of excessive force, like strangling.

Advocates say the transfers are retaliatory — in response to public allegations of abuse at Orange County — and they serve to cut immigrants’ ties with families and make it harder to prepare legal defenses.

In recent months, elected officials highlighted problems at the facility, lawyers filed a civil rights complaint to the Department of Homeland Security about physical and retaliatory violence by jail officers, and City Council held a hearing examining conditions.

“It may be retaliation for all of the things that were said about Orange County jail, and all the attention that got, but it’s just an example of how violent and egregious [ICE agents] are in their treatment,” said Tania Mattos of the Envision Freedom Fund, a New York nonprofit that seeks decarceration.

But the undersheriff for Orange County, Kenneth T. Jones, told Gothamist that his agency simply asked ICE to reduce the number of detainees at the jail because of both general staffing shortages his department is facing and the amount of time the county law department has spent addressing complaints filed by advocates over the treatment of detainees.

Jones said advocates’ “scandalous accusations” about conditions were all found to be “completely untrue,” though he did concede that the jail’s food is “nutritious but unpalatable.” Still, after ICE detention centers in New Jersey closed, Jones said advocates — “people paid to make allegations” — turned their attention to Orange County, and it drained county resources responding to the complaints.

“And we had said to those groups and elected officials who came here from New York City…’If you got your wish and detainees were removed from Orange County they would go to a place where people would be unable to visit them like they are today,’” Jones said. “You hate to be right. But isn't that exactly what happened?”

A spokesperson for ICE cast the transfers as a routine part of managing its detainee population.

The spokesperson, Emilio Dabul, said in an email that the transfers on Monday were simply “part of a facility-wide reduction in population affecting all agencies that use the facility.” He added: “To accommodate various operational demands, and meet emergent requirements, ICE routinely transfers individuals to designated facilities and locations based on available space and resources, at the needs of the agency and other partner agencies with whom the agency coordinates whole-of-government efforts.”

Advocates and attorneys first learned of the transfers on Sunday, when detainees were given COVID tests, indicating possible deportation. On Monday more than 70 detainees were put on a United Airlines flight to Mississippi, they said. Others are believed to have been sent to a privately-run facility in Batavia, NY, near Buffalo.

According to ICE, 69 incarcerated immigrants remain at the Orange County jail.

“I’m just as perplexed and furious as the people inside,” Mattos said, “because this really came out of nowhere.”

An immigration attorney with the Bronx Defenders, Karla Ostolaza, said in an email: “ICE transferring dozens of immigrant New Yorkers to Mississippi and beyond is a critical reminder that ICE always retains the authority to transfer people as far away from their families as possible, and ICE will wield that power to further their own retaliatory and political objectives: separating families and expediting the removal of Black and brown people from the United States.”

Advocates and some Democrats believe ICE shouldn’t jail anyone for what amounts to civil immigration violations that do not mandate imprisonment. And they have lobbied for a bill, the Detention Not Dignity Act, to ban ICE lock-up in New York. Still, they say if ICE is going to hold people it’s better, and more humane, to keep them near their homes — close to their families, attorneys, and immigration watchdogs — instead of a far-off place like the Adams County Correctional Facility in Natchung, MS, which has similarly been cited for poor conditions.

Once transferred, detainees have trouble reconnecting with their attorneys, advocates said. And those who are challenging their deportation orders in federal district courts in New York could see the legal venue change, delaying due process.

Many detainees in New York are Green Card holders who were picked up by ICE for past criminal violations. Though their criminal cases are closed, federal law allows non-citizens to be put into deportation proceedings if they’ve been convicted of crimes. The law does not require that they are detained while they challenge the deportation orders, but since the 1990s immigration authorities have held tens of thousands of people in jails each year.

The coalition of public defenders who represent New York immigrants, the New York Immigrant Family Unity Project, released a statement saying that ICE had previously informed them that the Orange County Sheriff’s Office was seeking to reduce the number of detainees it holds through a contract with ICE. But ICE forbid detainees from filing requests for release before they were moved, attorneys said, contrary to prior practice.

Moving detainees across the country limits family visits, attorneys said, and poses a health risk. “Despite well-documented evidence that ICE’s practice of transferring detained people worsened COVID-19 outbreaks within the receiving detention facilities and their surrounding communities, ICE has chosen to risk countless lives to maintain a cruel and unfair detention system that should not exist,” the statement said.

According to ICE policy, for security reasons it does not tell detainees that they’re being transferred until immediately before the move, and at that point the agency is not required to tell them where they’re going. Once they’re informed of the move, detainees are forbidden from making phone calls or talking to other detainees.

Years of stories on WNYC and Gothamist drew attention to inhumane, abusive, and retaliatory practices at the county jails in New Jersey that held ICE detainees through multimillion dollar contracts. ICE revenue to the countries spiked during the Trump Administration, which made the Democrats who run those counties — Essex, Hudson, and Bergen — the target of those who opposed President Trump’s immigration policies. As officials ended those contracts last year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill to ban public and private detention contracts with ICE going forward.

Many detainees who had been held in New Jersey jails were then moved to Orange County, where advocates said conditions were just as violent. Earlier this year a letter from nonprofit and legal organizations to the Department of Homeland Security alleged that a detainee with cognitive disabilities and suicidal ideations was beaten by at least seven officers, and another detainee was jumped by six officers and pepper-sprayed. Officers engaged in racist taunts, according to the letter, and medical care was withheld.

Two correction officers were transferred as a result, according to a jail official, but that move was not an admission of wrongdoing.

The county official who runs the ICE contract in Orange County, Undersheriff Kenneth Jones, did not return a call for comment. His past affiliation with the far-right Oath Keepers has also drawn criticism from advocates.

One other facility in the New York City region holds immigrants. The private prison company CoreCivic runs an ICE detention facility out of a converted warehouse in an industrial park in Elizabeth, NJ, that has also been criticized for disgusting conditions, including birds that fly inside, defecating on beds. Facing pressure, its landlord sued last year to cease the contract. But CoreCivic and the Biden Administration are fighting to dismiss the suit, and it remains in litigation.

This story was updated with additional comment from Kenneth T. Jones.